Friday, June 07, 2002

Clergy are thus fated to be nice. We hope that nobody will get hurt doing that. Of course, few may get saved either. Nobody will get to be a saint.

William Willimon contends that the above will be the result if pastors focus more on being real persons and less on being pastors . Willimon's writing is always provocative and grows as much out of real world pastoral ministry (he's the chaplain at Duke University) as out of academic theological reflection. The thrust of Willimon's article, entitled, "Why a Pastor Should Not be a 'Person'" is nicely summed up here:

The notion that we are most fully ourselves, most fully ethical, when we have freed ourselves from the demands of Scripture, tradition, and church merely demonstrates the power of the socially-sanctioned story that holds us captive. As George Lindbeck has shown, we are all liberals. That is, the individual is the basic unit of reality, the sole center of our meaning. We are all children of modernity, that story which holds that each of us has a right, a duty, to be free of all stories save the ones we have individually chosen. We all live under the modern presupposition that none of us should be held to commitments we have not freely chosen. Our morality has thus made freedom of choice an absolute necessity, for we believe that we have no destiny other than that which we personally choose.

If I explain my actions on the basis of tradition, community standards, my parents' beliefs, Scripture, I have obviously not decided for myself, have not been true to myself, have not rebelled against the external imposition of a role, so I have not been moral, I am less than a person.

The irony is that we have merely exchanged narrative masters. We jettison the older, traditional story that it is my duty as an ordained leader of the church to bear the church's tradition before the congregation for a more socially acceptable one-my duty is to my individual feelings and standards in order to free my parishioners to be dutiful to their individual feelings and standards.

Willimon rightly exalts the role of the pastor, while being well aware of the frailty of those who fill that office. He recognizes for instance the huge potential for the abuse of power that has been the pitfall of many pastors. What will keep us in check so that we don't abuse the power afforded us, however, is not the attempt to rebel against the ordained role in order to express the real person, but, in fact, the role shapes and determines who we are in a way that is quite freeing. The role, however, imposes on pastors tremendous responsibilities and often demands of them substantial sacrifices. I fear, as does Willimon, that if pastors don't feel the weight of being a shepherd and all that that office requires, then their ministries will be blunted and ineffective -- worse than that, they'll be flawed because of the idolatrous pursuit of individual personhood over scripturally founded, corporately bound, tradition-informed, Spirit-empowered pastoral ministry. It's late...I'm rambling.

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